Ship of Death: Spanish Flu on the High Seas

Posted on May 4, 2020

by Catharine Arnold

As conditions worsen on the USS Leviathan in October of 1918, another troopship, the Briton, faces similar problems as soldiers are forced to sleep on the deck to prevent the spread of the lethal Spanish flu.

U.S. Army Camp Hospital No. 45, Aix-Les-Bains, France, Influenza Ward No. 1. Influenza pandemic ward during World War I.
This image is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Conditions deteriorated by the hour. Chief Army Surgeon Colonel Decker was the only man on board with the military experience to solve this logistical problem, but the colonel fell ill himself on 1 October. Two other doctors also fell ill and remained in their cabins for the rest of the voyage, while 30 of the 200 army nurses also succumbed to flu. This left just eleven doctors in charge of an increasingly nightmarish situation.

Over on another troopship, the Briton, which was travelling four days ahead of the Leviathan, Private Robert James Wallace experienced similar conditions. After several days at sea, Private Wallace woke up feeling ‘utterly miserable’ and reported to the medical officer, who took his temperature and ordered him to gather his blanket and equipment and make up a bed on deck. When Private Wallace objected that it was cold and windy on deck, the medical officer retorted: ‘Suit yourself. You have a temperature of 103°. You are sick. If you want to go below and infect all of them down there, go ahead!’

Private Wallace walked out in the gale to join the others on deck, spread his blanket and wrapped himself up in his greatcoat, put on his hat and went to sleep. Although conditions were scarcely ideal, the open deck was at least fully ventilated. Private Wallace drifted in and out of consciousness, dreaming of a great rope of coloured silk, which he must not climb down, because to do so would be desertion. Waves swept across the deck, soaking the blankets of the sick. One night, Private Wallace’s mess kit rattled away forever across the pitching deck. The following morning, he discovered that his cap and puttees had been swept away too.

Every morning, orderlies appeared on deck to check on the patients and carry away those who had died during the night. The sight of the dead men being taken away was a matter for ‘sober conjecture’ among the living. One morning, Private Wallace was picked up and carried below decks to a luxurious first-class salon, where private passengers had been entertained in the long-lost days before the war. The ghosts of pleasures past lingered on in the brocade-covered sofas and soft warm carpets. Private Wallace still had to sleep on the floor, but at least the carpets were comfortable, and he was fed several times a day. One night, a nurse appeared, and asked with an English accent whether he was having a hard time. She brought Private Wallace a warm drink, and even washed his feet for him, peeling off the socks that were glued to his feet after twelve days. Private Wallace remembered this nurse with gratitude half a century later. ‘That gentle washing of my feet with her soft soapy hands engraved a memory in my mind I shall record in Heaven when I get there.’

Conditions in the salon were more salubrious than out on deck but this did not guarantee recovery. One night, a fellow patient cried out for water, but Private Wallace was too ill to get it for him. He called to a medic and fell asleep. The man cried out again, and again Private Wallace called for water on his behalf: and again, he fell asleep. This happened many times until the other man whispered: ‘Don’t bother any more, I won’t need it.’ In the morning, the medics arrived at last, and found the man ‘where he had rolled in some final, dim, instinctual effort to gain protection, under the settee. They carried him out for the burial detail.’

USS Leviathan Steaming out of New York Harbor, circa the mid-1920s.
This photo is in the public domain via Wikicommons.

Meanwhile, back on the Leviathan, conditions were deteriorating further. The troop compartments were crammed with sick and dying men, the air rank and foetid due to the ineffectual ventilation system. Without daily cleansing, these quarters swiftly became pigsties. To make matters worse, morale was low. The men, who came from ten separate units, were draftees, with no habit of obedience to a single commander or army discipline. The Leviathan was alone at sea, without an escort, with Spanish flu knocking men flat by the score every hour and with the almost palpable spectre of the Spanish Lady stalking through the ship. As the vessel sailed on across the Atlantic the prospect of being torpedoed by a U-boat must have been positively welcome. Below decks, scenes resembled the aftermath of a battle. Colonel Gibson later described:

Scenes which cannot be visualised by anyone who has not actually seen them. Pools of blood from severe nasal haemorrhages of many patients were scattered throughout the compartments, and the attendants were powerless to escape tracking through the mess, because of the narrow passages between the bunks. The decks became wet and slippery, groans and cries of the terrified added to the confusion of the applicants clamouring for treatment, and altogether a true inferno reigned supreme.

© Copyright Catharine Arnold 2020

© Stuart Marshall

Catharine Arnold read English at Girton College, Cambridge and holds a further degree in psychology. A journalist, academic, and popular historian, her previous books include The Sexual History of LondonNecropolis, and Bedlam.

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